Labor in Iranian Studies, Panel I: Trends in Modern History and Historiography

Does the agency of labour matter for our understanding of change in modern Iran? This is the key question addressed by two interrelated panels, the first of which investigates trends in history and historiography, while the second focuses on case studies.

The flourishing of labour studies after WW2 had a great impact on social history and critical social sciences. By placing the working life of ordinary people at the centre of scholarly investigation, labour studies introduced radical new perspectives into the analysis of social, political, economic, and cultural change. After experiencing some decline in 1970s and 1980s, in the last twenty years labour and subaltern studies has gone through a modest revival, going beyond Europe and US and being truly globalized, expanding into Latin America, Africa and Asia. In the Middle East, labour has become increasingly more present in the historiography of the Ottoman Empire, Turkey and Egypt.

In this first panel, the panellists evaluate the trends in both the history and the historiography of labour and labouring poor in Iran. They seek to answer if the agency of labour and subaltern matter in historiography, and if so, why it has been largely missing in the contemporary major metanarratives of macrohistories of Iran? The panellists will focus on theoretical and methodological obstacles, the relationship of labour with gender, ethnicity, culture, economy and politics, and the ways in which the study of labour has furthered our understanding of historical and contemporary developments in Iran. The panellists will also suggest theoretical and historiographical approaches that can help to further labour studies in Iran.


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The paper looks at the history of women’s labor and argues that the nature of female labor has shifted from unpaid family worker in agrarian economy to paid work in the service and industrial sector. The unfolding of modernization process has led to this transformation and the trend has remained uninterrupted in spite of an Islamic revolution. Women have entered the labor market consistently in the aftermath of the revolution and the war in the 1980s has exacerbated this process. However, the overall labor force participation of women resonates with that of the MENA region and remains low from a global perspective. Moreover, the problem of high female unemployment and especially young educated female labor force is now one of a most critical aspect of today’s society.

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Having played a decisive role during the revolution, Iranian oil workers entered the 1980s with great expectations about their living and working conditions. But they also expected to continue and expand the limited control they had gained in the management of the oil industry through their collective workplace organizations.
This paper discusses how the war period (1980-88) shaped the working and living conditions of oil workers and it traces the conflicts that emerged among oil workers and between them and the industry’s management. This setting provides an opportunity to investigate how identification with class, nation and religion shaped the outcomes of the conflicts.
Islamic war-nationalism and the ideology of self-sufficiency shaped the industrial relations of the oil industry during this period. Based on archival material, oral history and journals, the paper provides a historical account of the repression of independent workers’ organizations and the reactions of oil workers, the formation of Islamic Labour Associations, the upward mobility of pro-government employees, and the impact of industrial, social and housing policies of the oil industry.
The paper also looks closely at the impact of the war in the Abadan Refinery and the dislocation of its workforce. Tracing the fortunes of a number of workers who migrated to other cities, the paper shows the tragedy and the complexity of the political and social conditions of the war period, demonstrating the centrality of the fate of Abadan for the Iranian labour movement.

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Iranian craft industries, particularly textiles, experienced a major setback at the face of the European economic penetration from mid-nineteenth century onwards though later in the century they showed signs of recovery in the competition for the domestic market while at the same time some craft industries, particularly carpet weaving, mainly produced for exportation. Lack of protective economic measures and the unfavorable tariffs furthered the negative impact of the imported ready-made goods.

However, encompassing both guild-based and cottage types of production small-scale manufacturing survived the competition by finding cost reducing solutions such as the use of imported yarn and dyestuffs as well as the employment of cheaper workforce to wit females but particularly children. Especially from early twentieth century onwards there has been much debate about the excessive imports and the consequent trade deficit. Generally speaking, however, the insistence on the perennial deficit on visible trade was used as the culprit of country’s economic plight to stress the principal problem i.e the decline in craft industries. The successive governments throughout 1910s and 1920s fell short of finding any viable solution to this problem.

Yet with the gradual consolidation of the Pahlavi modernization from mid-1920s onwards the new economic policies which were uncompromisingly biased towards large-scale industrialization dealt the actual blow at craft industries. This was doubled by the monopolies formed, new infrastructural projects undertaken and the new taxation system introduced which gradually furthered the state authority to the remote areas of the country.

This paper discusses how crafts people reacted, negotiated and accommodated to this process which reached its peak in 1930s. Instead of reproducing the narrative of a hegemonic state power against a passive and receptive society the paper investigates the survival strategies of the Iranian subalterns living on craft industries. It argues that the economic policies adopted during this period were more challenging for them than the European economic domination of the previous decades. It also argues that through their seemingly deferential attitudes crafts people survived the ever-increasing economic penetration of the central authority by at the same time engaging with it in a unique way.

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Amongst many academic enquiries that followed the Iranian revolution of 1979, was a rising entreaty for revisiting the country’s past, both immediate and the distant past. It was in fact the complexities of the Iranian revolution and its outcomes that begged for a theoretical exploration of the nation’s past. The past needed to be revisited, in order to find answers to all queries devised from the failures of the teleological paradigms, posed for decades by the modernists, both Marxists and non-Marxists. In writing history, turning to the metanarratives in macro-history postured to “discover” the “congenital” social structure that in the long-term crafted the major trends in Iranian history. However, the main criterion that anchored these metanarratives is their exclusive approach to re-examining the past from an elitist perspective. Through assigning agency in history to the elite that in its multiplicity could be clerics, secular intelligentsia, colonialists and social or political institutions, these metanarratives not only deny the agency of the non-elite and their autonomous consciousness, but also necessitate an essentialist approach that ends up dehistoricising the process of social and cultural changes.

By reviewing some new and major metanarratives of macrohistories of Iran, the purpose of this paper is to reveal how the labouring poor are missing in these accounts. Thus, an essential criterion of my contribution is its counter-essentialist approach to the process of social and cultural changes, which circumscribes the question of agency and subjectivity in writing the past.